Big Day Out @ Sydney Showground, Sydney (18/01/2013)

ALBERT SANTOS braves one hell of a heat wave to discover a much improved Big Day Out.

This time last year the Big Day Out was in turmoil. The response to its double-headline bill of a controversial popstar and a veteran rock act was mild at best. The rest of the lineup also left a lot to be desired, with many of the acts having recently toured. Public perception had turned and it led to one of the poorest showings in the event’s history, a permanent end to the New Zealand leg, and the departure of one of the festival’s founding fathers, Viv Lees.

Twelve months later, while the summer festival season remains as bloated as ever, the Big Day Out has been given a much needed facelift. The sale of half the festival to U.S. consortium C3 (of Lollapalooza fame) has led to an overhaul in much of the festival’s running and the logistical results have been astounding. At the first “new Big Day Out” amenities were available everywhere, especially all-too-precious water; security personnel were kind and courteous; bottlenecks and crowd-crushes were non-existent; and with AV duties outsourced to MTV, sound was near-perfect on every stage.

However, the weather didn’t put up a great a show, bringing forth one of the hottest Sydney days ever, followed by rain and a windstorm.

Deep Sea Arcade appeared more exhausted than their audience (long sleeve shirts were a bad choice) who were grasping for water, meandering towards both misting and first aid tents, and passing out randomly rather than paying much attention. Hunting Grounds, inside the Essential shed, had the same problem, except in their case most of the crowd was laying down in puddles of their own sweat. But for the small crowd that did stand, the band did a great job of at least acting like they had the energy to match their music.

Against Me! were one of the first internationals – dressed all in black – to brave the heat, greeting a small crowd of passionate fans on the mainstage. Laura Jane Grace was explosive up front, leading her group in a set dominated by classic hits, with more passion than almost any other band on the lineup. Even if you’re completely unfamiliar with their music, their set is not to be missed.

Of the many changes to the way Big Day Out works, there were two major shifts that stood out. The first was the introduction of Chow Town. The much-touted boutique food lane has completely revitalized festival grub; with hand-crumbed drumsticks or pulled pork burgers for the same price as an undercooked hotdog, it almost feels insulting to go back to your average food carts. Eating poutine and drinking ginger iced tea while watching the beautiful soul-rock of Gary Clark Jr was a personal highlight of the day.

It’s difficult to explain Death Grips to the uninitiated. Describing them as a shirtless, near-toothless man rapping about murder while a dude drums on cans and a bunch of iMac screens loop smut visuals, does not do justice to how absolutely insane there show was. They were as polarizing live as their 2012 album The Money Store : you’ll either be scared, confused and maybe outraged, or you’ll think this is the greatest experience of your life. The fact that people started vomiting in the moshpit during their performance only incited more buzz about their performance.

Vampire Weekend, with their youthful looks and bubbly pop are almost too saccharine. They’re the musical pre-cooked meal for the Wes Anderson generation. This is not so much an opinion but, at this stage in their career, a mere fact. But what’s great about Vampire Weekend is that, on stage, they own their stereotype completely. As a result, the young, peaceful, mostly-dickhead-free crowd (the second noticeable change of the festival) loved every minute of it, and rightly so. The New York four-piece got a crowd that may have booed them during Big Day Outs past, to sing and dance along with a tight and jubilant set. Heck, there was even a synchronized flash mob.

If there was one downside to the distinctly younger crowd, it’s that the Yeah Yeah Yeahs didn’t get the response they deserved until ‘Heads Will Roll’, when someone screamed out, “It’s the Glee song!” Does it matter to Karen O though? Not at all. She was dancing and hopping in a yellow leather suit with “VIOLENT FUZZ” bedazzled onto it. Even more astonishing still was her ability to make her soft, near-whisper vocals to ‘Maps’ travel throughout the arena. The musical prowess of bandmates Nick Zinner and Brian Chase is well documented, so it goes without saying that they too commanded a sweltering set. Even with only a single preview from upcoming album Mosquito, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs were far and away “Best In Show” Big Day Out 2013.

It’d be surprising if The Killers weren’t completely over the top. From their first song – the melodramatic ‘Mr. Brightside’ – the whole stadium was singing along in unison. Their act is a pastiche of every stadium rock stereotype from the past 30 years: Lights! Fireworks! Guitar solos! Big-screen montages! Ballads! Call-and-response refrains! Funny haircuts! Indeed, subtlety is not, and never will be, this band’s strong point. But that is their shtick and for some reason they pull it off with total aplomb. U2 would be proud.

Meanwhile, supposedly Crystal Castles played to a relatively small Boiler Room crowd. “Supposedly,” because a cloud of smog covered the whole Boiler Room stage. For all we know, the British duo – known for aping Atari Teenage Riot – could have just walked off stage and left their iTunes playing. Considering Alice Glass’ live presence, that arguably would’ve been better than seeing Crystal Castles.

A wander to the Green stage revealed a distraught crowd being held back by security; the sudden windstorm had temporarily stopped all proceedings post-Alabama Shakes , while an announcement reassured fans, “they’ll still get to see their favourite bands soon”.

The presence of the Red Hot Chili Peppers felt much like “old” Big Day Out, and their headlining spot certainly divided opinions. The crowd behind them was massive – the biggest since Rage Against The Machine – and seeing that many people singing along in unison is always strangely beautiful, however, their stage presence, most notably Anthony Kiedis’, often felt like a parody of their younger selves.

In addition, Kiedis can’t sing his own songs (let alone remember the words to them), the new guitarist Josh Klinghoffer struggled with Frusciante’s parts, flailing comically around the stage and Chad Smith’s drums were occasionally drowned out by a second drummer. The only real stayer in Chilli’s is Flea, whose bass playing – while interspersed with high kicks and an unnecessary amount of airtime – is still something to behold. The choice of setlist was also not overly “festival friendly” – every time the band worked the crowd into a frenzy with one of their classics , they let the ball drop by including a cut from ‘I’m With You’, or a weaker, forgotten track like their wretched Bowie cover or ‘Throw Away Your Television’.

Even with a reduced set, Foals played an exciting mix of new and old songs to whoever remained after the Green stage’s temporary closure. Like Battles last year, they’re one of few bands that can make math-rock exciting to see live. Closing with their latest single ‘Inhaler’ their ascending, powerful stage presence made a strong case for a mainstage upgrade second time around.

Animal Collective, who closed Green with one of the best stage set-ups of the day, were the complete opposite. Sure, the inflatable mouth and psychedelic visuals that circled them were great. But they appeared so absorbed with fiddling knobs that at times it felt like we were watching three guys use radar equipment. This was only highlighted by the fact they weren’t even singing live, but rather just looping pre-recorded vocals.

In the process of 12 months, the Big Day Out has gone from a festival on the brink of extinction to something that feels new and fresh. Many of the festival mainstays are gone: the Lilypad has all but disappeared, as have many of the art installations. But in return, they have been traded off for something that, between the absurdity of the El Jimador Wrestling Bar and the separation of the festival from its negative stereotypes (only one Australian flag used as a cape was seen), feels exciting, youthful, and most importantly relevant. It’s incredible that 21 years since the first Big Day Out, the festival is still finding ways to change the landscape of Australian live music for the better.